The origins of The Queen’s York Rangers lie with the Seven Years War, the struggle between Britain and France from 1756 to 1763 for global supremacy. One of the major theatres was North America, where the English Thirteen Colonies along the eastern seaboard again resumed their long contest against New France. With nearly a million settlers backed by the Royal Navy’s maritime might, the British seemed to hold the advantage in America over the French, whose vast but thinly-populated domains numbered little more than sixty-thousand habitants, coureurs des boisand missionaries.
But the French had one crucial asset. While Britain’s redcoats relied on European tactics best suited for the Old World’s open, cultivated plains, French forces in Canada adapted their native Indian allies’ style of highly mobile and flexible warfare. They called it “la petite guerre” (small war), which was ideal for the American forest. Rather than marching in bright colours and gold braid and deploying in formation according to the mathematically precise drill of the Age of Reason, French soldiers fought such small wars as guerrillas, kitted in colours that blended in with the woods, engaging the foe by surprise in raids and ambush, and firing from scattered, concealed positions rather than in well-ordered ranks.
Much of the combat during this war took place in the Champlain Valley south of Montréal. At the time this wilderness of woods, mountains, waterways and swamps was a frontier between New France and New England. It was no-man’s land, thinly held by the troops that manned the string of fortresses strung out along the waterways that link the St Lawrence River to the Hudson. The French and British posts stretched down from Montréal and up from Albany, respectively. Like two angry snakes, with their heads at Ft. Ticonderoga and Ft. William Henry, the adversaries glowered angrily at each other across little more than the 40-kilometre sliver of Lake George in what is now Upstate New York. Mastery over this territory would largely determine whether Fleurs de Lysor Union Jack would fly over the contested lands to the west.
Alliances with Indigenous peoples
Alliances with many of the Indian nations and their expertise in the natives’ wilderness way of war had long given the French the upper hand in the Champlain Valley. However, the English colonies were not entirely without assets of their own. As early as the 17thcentury, hardy settlers on New Hampshire and Massachusetts’ borderlands had formed militias in times of peril to defend themselves from Indian raids. The only way to guard against such attacks was to patrol or “range” into the forests that stretched beyond their isolated villages. As frontiersmen, experienced since boyhood in hunting, trapping and living in the woods for long periods, such rangers were much better versed with combat in the bush than the Crown’s well-drilled redcoats. And, like French Canadians, these pioneers were much more ready to learn the craft of small war from the Native Americans.
In 1755, already a year before war was formally declared, some colonies began to raise militia regiments to assist regular troops in the coming campaign against New France. Each of these provincial units set up one or two companies of “men acquainted with the woods,” whose job was to “obtain…intelligence of the strength, situation and motions of the enemy,” as one British general put it. When early that year Robert Rogers, the adventurous son of a Scots-Irish colonist on New Hampshire’s frontier, offered to provide a group of 50 volunteers as a ranger company to the provincial militia, its commander eagerly accepted his offer.
Major Robert Rogers
Major Robert Rogers’ name is still a household word in the United States. During the Seven Years War, newspaper readers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia – and even overseas in London – thrilled to reports of his heroic exploits, and the succeeding centuries have not diminished his renown. As an undergraduate at Harvard College in the early 19thcentury, the distinguished American historian Francis Parkman was so taken by the major’s adventures that he retraced the path of one of Rogers’ most difficult journeys during his summer break. Parkman’s history of the conflict – long regarded as the definitive English-language account of the “French and Indian Wars” – did much to popularise the Ranger to his contemporaries.
In 1937 Kenneth Roberts based a best-selling novel on Robert Rogers and his rangers. Published as Northwest Passage, the book was soon made into a feature film with Spencer Tracy playing the lead role. There was even a television series with the same title in the late 1950s. And when the American military created its own commando unit in the Second World War, it adopted both the legacy and the name of Rogers’ force, as the US Army Rangers.
The New Hampshire Regiment had been wise to appoint Robert Rogers captain of its ranger company. During summer 1755, Rogers led a number of patrols from Ft. William Henry at Lake George’s southern tip far into enemy territory. Two particularly hazardous missions to reconnoitre Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain brought back valuable intelligence about the French strongholds. Although the Regiment was disbanded when the fighting season came to a close in autumn, Rogers volunteered to stay on through the winter. Continuing his scouts of the perilous frontier, now by snowshoe and skate, he attracted much favourable attention from senior officers and the press.
In spring 1756 Major-General William Shirley, then commanding British forces in North America, decided to organise a special unit for patrols in the Champlain Valley. Instead of forming another temporary militia, Shirley had in mind an “Independent Company of Rangers,” which would be directly under his command, permanent, and paid by the Crown. According to the general, its duties would be:
to make discoveries of the proper routes for our own Troops, procure Intelligence of the Enemy’s strength and Motions, destroy their out Magazines and Settlements, pick up small Parties of their Battoes (boats) upon the Lakes, and keep them under continual Alarm.
Such hazardous work was to be well rewarded, with troops being paid more than twice their counterparts in the regular army. The new force was to be recruited from, “none but such as were used to travelling and hunting.” Shirley’s choice as commander naturally fell on the famous New Hampshire ranger leader.
Summoning Rogers to his Boston headquarters on March 24, the general handed him his commission. The document had actually been signed a day earlier. That date, March 23, 1756, therefore marks the founding of what eventually became The Queen’s York Rangers.
Recruiting the Rangers
Rogers’ first job was to find men for his new unit, whose strength was authorised at 60 privates, three sergeants, one ensign and two lieutenants. All were drawn from the scouts who had served under him in New Hampshire. Like their captain, they tended to be Ulster Scot settlers well acquainted with the wilderness who needed little schooling in orienteering, stalking, canoeing, and living off the land, not to mention being superb marksmen.
As the need for the Rangers’ specialist skills grew, additional companies were soon recruited from men with increasingly diverse backgrounds, including Boston sailors, Irish Catholics, Spaniards, Native Americans, and even a Harvard graduate. Within a year there were four ranger companies with 100 men each, and by 1758 Lord Loudon, now the British commander-in-chief, authorised five more, including one of Mohegan Indians from Connecticut.
Although they did not always serve together, the Rangers were all under the authority of Robert Rogers, who was promoted to major in April 1758. As members of an elite force who relied on initiative and flexibility, their hierarchy was much less rigid than that of regular units. At the same time, Rogers refrained from ordering his men to devote an inordinate amount of time to parade ground drill or polishing buttons.
The Rangers did not even have a consistent uniform. They dressed instead in practical outfits best suited for the bush, such as short woollen jackets, buckskin breeches, woollen leggings and moccasins, topped by a variety of headgear, including leather jockey caps and Scottish bonnets. Since camouflage was much more important than martial magnificence the dominant colour was green, in stark contrast to the bright scarlet worn by troops of the line. Contemporaries were often struck by the “cut-throat, savage appearance” of the Rangers, who looked more like Native Americans than His Majesty’s troops.
Some British officers disdained the Rangers’ seemingly undisciplined ways. They no doubt shared General James Wolfe’s impression of colonial troops as “the most contemptible, cowardly dogs you can conceive.” However, his superiors valued Rogers’ talents highly. In September 1757, Lord Loudon ordered him to form a cadet company to train some of his more promising junior officers in the rarefied arts of the small war.
Rules of Ranging
To disseminate his officer’s wisdom more widely, Lord Loudon also asked Rogers to summarise these lessons on paper. Based on tried and true Indian practices, these 28 “Rules of Discipline” are one of the most concise and effective statements of small unit tactics (please see the appendix). They remain as true today as they did when they were first written two and a half centuries ago.
Much as it is today, Ranger reconnaissance was dangerous work. The Battle on Snowshoes, one of Rogers’ most well known clashes, was typical of the hazards his men regularly faced. On the afternoon of March 13, 1758, four days into a long-range patrol of Ticonderoga and Crown Point, some of the major’s men spotted a group of Indians and Frenchmen. Rogers immediately decided to lay an ambush. The trap entirely caught the foe by surprise, and appeared to be a success. However, when some of Rogers’ force rushed to head off the fleeing survivors, a much larger force startled them in turn. The ensuing battle was desperate and costly. Only escape into the early nightfall’s darkness saved the Rangers from total annihilation. Of the 184 men who had set out, less than a third straggled back to their base after the disaster.
The following year, 1759, saw Robert Rogers carry out a mission that made his name a byword for daring and endurance. On orders of the new commander-in-chief, Major-General Jeffrey Amherst, he was to destroy the Abenaki village of St Francis, deep in the enemy’s heartland. Located just east of Montréal near present-day Drummondville, and some 250 kilometres north of the last British fort, this settlement was home to an Indian nation that had long been the scourge of New England’s colonists.
Setting off on September 13, the major first led his force of some 200 Rangers by whaleboat up the waters of Lake Champlain. The presence of armed French ships made this leg of the journey a hazardous undertaking, and the small flotilla proceeded for ten days with methodical slowness to avoid detection. Making landfall at the lake’s northern shore, Rogers now took on a gruelling nine-day march through swamps and trackless woods, made all the more miserable by that autumn’s unusually chilly damp.
There was no time to tarry, since the major had learned that the French had discovered and destroyed his boats and were on his tail. Until now only nature had claimed any casualties, but her toll was not light. Already within the first six days one-fifth of the Rangers had been forced to abandon the march.
The raid itself, carried out just before dawn on October 6, caught the Abenaki completely by surprise. With the village destroyed and its inhabitants virtually annihilated, the mission’s aim had been accomplished. But the Rangers’ ordeal had only just begun. Prisoners confirmed that two large forces of French troops were nearby, and both would soon hasten with fury to avenge the major’s audacity.
As the group’s meagre supplies began to run out, famine now ganged up with the French and the increasingly harsh October weather. According to one account:
Some…lost their senses; whilst others, who could no longer bear the keen pangs of an empty stomach, began to eat their own excrements. What leather they had on their cartouche boxes, had already been…greedily devoured.
The darkest moment came two weeks into the trek back. Before setting out on his patrol, Rogers had ordered a lieutenant to meet him with provisions at a designated point on the return route. As the major and his starving band straggled to the rendezvous, there was no sign of the subaltern or his stores. Yet the smouldering embers of a campfire suggested that the party had just been there a few hours earlier. “It is hardly possible to describe our grief and consternation,” Rogers later recalled. Nevertheless, he summoned up his last reserves of strength and a week later managed to make it back to a British post. It is a testament to the major’s skills that, of the 140 officers and men who actually participated in the raid on St. Francis, nearly 90 survived the gruelling homeward journey.
While Robert Rogers made his fame through such irregular operations, his Rangers also joined more conventional campaigns. In 1757 and again the next year, Ranger companies were sent to Halifax to join the assaults on the great French naval bastion at Louisbourg, in Cape Breton.
During the second effort, which was successful, the Rangers played a crucial role by helping to secure a beachhead. Enemy fire from shore was so heavy that their commander, Brigadier-General James Wolfe, had ordered them to turn back. Whether the Rangers didn’t hear the command or merely pretended not to do so remains open to question. However, in the “storm of grape [shot] and musketry,” the landing party had spotted a relatively quiet section of the coast – a nearly perpendicular wall of rock. Nevertheless, the Rangers managed to scale the height. Overwhelming the surprised defenders with bayonets, hatchets and knives, they beat them back and covered the landing for the rest of Wolfe’s brigade. The fortress capitulated seven weeks later, leaving New France vulnerable to invasion from sea.
The Fall of Nouvelle France
The following year, 1759, saw the turning of the tide as General Wolfe seized Québec at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Assigned to Wolfe by direct orders of the King, some 600 Rangers joined his expedition to the French colonial capital, and they had been the first to engage its defenders.
Meanwhile, the other Ranger companies, which had remained in the Champlain Valley, acted as the advance guard in General James Abercrombie’s capture of Ticonderoga and Crown Point. After Québec’s fall, the Rangers also took part in the advance on Montréal in 1760.
The Rangers’ last important assignment of the war came later that year. The French surrender of its North American colony included posts at Detroit and further west. To General Amherst, only Robert Rogers seemed capable of making the dangerous journey through territory largely unknown to the British and taking possession of the forts. With two companies of Rangers, the major left Montréal in mid-September and made his way up the Great Lakes to what is now Michigan. Along the way, he stopped at the abandoned French post of Toronto, which struck him as “a proper place for a factory” (trading station).
On November 29 Rogers successfully took over Detroit, which had the only large remaining French garrison. Unfortunately, ice floes forming on Lake Huron barred further progress. The major therefore made his way back to the British headquarters at New York, where General Amherst greeted him with open arms. Although peace would not formally be declared until 1763, the war for America was now over. As hostilities came to a close, the Ranger companies were disbanded and the men returned to their regular occupations.
Major Robert Rogers would remain loyal to the King when the Thirteen Colonies revolted a dozen years later. The regiment he raised for the Crown, the Queen’s Rangers, fought the rebels right up to the surrender at Yorktown in 1781 and would go on to help guard Upper Canada against the Americans. Nevertheless, because of his singular role during the “French and Indian War,” the United States claims him as one of their heroes. Perhaps his legacy is sufficiently great that he can be admired on both sides of the border. A biographer once mused about Rogers and his Rangers:
They won Canada from France so that the American Colonies might be free to win their independence from England, and then strove to defend Canada from American occupation, so that two great countries might be born.